I’m very happy to pass on the news that the state of New York has fined a plastic surgery franchise $300,000 for flooding the Internet with false reviews. This explanation is posted on the New York Attorney General’s official website:
Lifestyle Lift employees published positive reviews and comments about the company to trick Web-browsing consumers into believing that satisfied customers were posting their own stories. These tactics constitute deceptive commercial practices, false advertising, and fraudulent and illegal conduct under New York and federal consumer protection law. The settlement marks a strike against the growing practice of “astroturfing,” in which employees pose as independent consumers to post positive reviews and commentary to Web sites and Internet message boards about their own company.
While I have mixed feelings about governments regulating the Web, my gut reaction was celebration. I like using reviews on the Web (I’ve posted about reviews and review pollution here in Bad Apples last Spring and Reading Consumer Reviews last year), but they are easy to fake and abuse. In an email response to one of those posts, a hotel owner told me someone tried to extort $500 from him by threatening a bad review.
The paradox troubles me. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to pollute. Spam, fake reviews, porn and such worry me, but so does the idea of governments messing with it all. For now, though, I’m glad to see some government intervention on extreme cases, and hoping we can trust those agencies to leave the Web alone the rest of the time. Is that naive?
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I think the New York AG was spot on. Even TV ads have to put “actor portrayal” or something to that effect when the ad features someone acting as a satisfied customer.
New train of thought: Suppose in some part of the fake reviews there was an “actor portrayal”-type disclaimer. Would they still get fined if the disclaimers were deemed to be not easily found?